By now, you’ve probably heard the exotic, superhero-like origin story of Gotye. Wouter aka Walter aka Wally De Backer was born in Belgium, and moved to Australia, where he grew up, and played music in various bands with varying degrees of success until 2011 when things, well, changed. A lot.
That’s when his song “Somebody That I Used To Know,” recorded under the name Gotye (his spelling of “Gauthier,” which is French for “Walter”), exploded, with Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry tweeting about the song and video, which features Gotye and duet partner Kimbra in the buff, except for strategically-placed paint that comes and goes. Nine million copies of the single have now been sold, and a host of tributes and parodies have proliferated on YouTube. So many, in fact, that Gotye, who often builds songs from samples of obscure records, couldn’t resist remixing them.
“I was just keen to do it creatively, because I found it a lot of fun,” Gotye said in a phone interview, referring to his infinitely clever and whimsical new audio/video collage “Somebodies: A YouTube Orchestra”, (www.youtube.com/watch?v=opg4VGvyi3M&feature=youtube_gdata_player). “It relates to ways I’ve made music very intensely before, collecting large amounts of data and forcing through how you can bring them together and have them comment on each other.”
The cornerstone of Gotye’s video remix of the most ubiquitous song in recent memory, is a YouTube guitar lesson by a user named Barry Harrell, whose biggest fan is Gotye himself.
“I’ve gotta say, people ask me about ‘what’s it like with Ashton Kutcher tweeting about your song?’ and that’s all cool, but people make that out to be bigger than it is,” Gotye said. “I genuinely had a far more heartfelt feeling of joy when five minutes after I put the ‘Somebodies’ YouTube mash-up out there, Barry actually emailed me expressing his joy at being included. And he’s actually gonna come to a show on this tour so we’re gonna meet up. I love that YouTube allows for this goodwill between someone I don’t even know but I’ve kind of, in this weird way, gotten to know through his video. It’s a really good feeling.”
Gotye’s “overnight success,” like many before him, wasn’t sudden at all, and this wasn’t his first foray into the music industry. He spent close to a decade playing in Australia, both as Gotye and with his rock trio, The Basics. With Gotye as drummer and sometimes vocalist, The Basics started out playing covers before delving into writing and performing original tunes. At the same time, though, Gotye was always “tinkering in [his] bedroom,” as he puts it, working on the music that would form the basis of his later, wildly-successful solo work.
On one tour with The Basics, Gotye’s tinkering brought him to a remote section of the Australian outback to a town called Winton, and he happened upon something called the “Winton Musical Fence.” Created by a local percussionist, the Fence has strings suspended between posts that could be hit or otherwise struck to create musical notes. Gotye liked the sound of the fence and decided to take his sampler along on a visit.
“I sampled those sounds without a particular idea of how they were gonna be used,” he said. “But then over the next couple of months, they found their way into [his single] ‘Eyes Wide Open.’ And that was the first song I wrote for this new Gotye record.”
Now Gotye is in a new phase of his career, musing about the way he got here, and taking time to reflect on the way he creates music. He said he had recently read Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania, which takes the view that the current music industry isn’t offering anything new or original, but rather constantly rehashing recent pop history, albeit in new forms.
Gotye said that reading Reynolds’ diatribe had made him think about the way he wrote songs, cobbling together bits and pieces of never-heard music that he discovers in vintage record stores. “Somebody That I Used To Know,” in fact, samples a guitar part from Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá’s song “Seville,” from Bonfa’s 1967 album Luiz Bonfa Plays Great Songs. Gotye was intrigued with the album title and found a little musical bit that he twisted and turned into something brand new. And that, he has come to realize, is maybe his unique musical gift.
“I think maybe the stuff that I do that’s the most successful or the most interesting is the stuff that somehow finds the balance between those competing tensions [sampling the past versus creating something brand new] and something unique does come out of it. And maybe the stuff that I do that’s more of a stylistic homage or pastiche, recently I’ve decided I shouldn’t allow myself the license to do that as much because it’s not as interesting and I should challenge myself to try to distill something more unique out of those directions.”
And so, the Belgian-Australian sampling, singing phenomenon has embarked on his first headlining tour of amphitheaters and large venues across the U.S., recently playing at Red Rocks and heading our way in September, when he’ll play Merriweather Post Pavilion. For an artist who doesn’t consider live shows when he’s in his studio, patching together sounds, ideas, and lyrics, he’s got a different goal for the tour.
“We’re always working,” he said, “on how it can be as live and exciting and acoustic as possible.”
Gotye performs with Missy Higgins and Jonti, Sunday, September 30, 5:30 p.m., at Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD; 410-715-5550; www.merriweathermusic.com.